The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw NBA basketball. In order to get you up to speed before the July 30 season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
[More NBA restart previews: Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Houston Rockets • Indiana Pacers • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Miami Heat • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Toronto Raptors • Utah Jazz • Washington Wizards]
Place: First in the East
The Milwaukee Bucks were laying waste to the league this season, operating at a 70-win pace for much of the year before Giannis Antetokounmpo missed four games down the stretch due to the birth of his son and an initially scary knee sprain. Antetokounmpo, now healthy, has been the most dominant force on both ends of the floor this season, posting per-36-minute numbers (35-16-7 on 60.8 percent true shooting) the likes of which we have never seen — not even close. He is favored to join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only player to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same year.
One reason Antetokounmpo was not actually playing 36 minutes per game was because the Bucks beat teams so badly that he was often not needed. He and Brook Lopez anchored a defense that protects the rim at all costs and rates as the NBA’s best outfit by a margin equal to the distance between the second- and eighth-best teams. Antetokounmpo also owned the rim on offense, shooting 72.9 percent on 10.4 attempts per game inside the restricted area, a gravitational pull that opens the rest of the floor for a host of shooting threats perfectly suited to complement a freakishly athletic 6-foot-11 position-less playmaker.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Out: Eric Bledsoe (COVID-19), Pat Connaughton (COVID-19)
An invaluable member of the Bucks, even if his postseason play may have led to their playoff exits in each of the past two seasons, Bledsoe tested positive for the coronavirus prior to his team’s arrival in Orlando. He arrived Wednesday to Walt Disney World, where he will have to register two negative COVID-19 tests over two days of quarantine before rejoining his teammates. He is expected to be available for the playoffs. Connaughton plans to follow the same protocol once he is cleared to play.
Over/under wins in the bubble: N/A
NBA Finals odds: -176
Championship odds: +280
It has to be Bledsoe. A borderline All-Star each of the past two seasons, capable of secondary playmaking for himself and others on offense and an All-Defensive-level talent on the other end, he has often appeared overwhelmed by the moment in the playoffs. His relatively efficient scoring marks during the regular season have dipped to detrimental levels in each of the past two postseasons (combined 42/26/70 shooting splits), and he often played himself off the floor in favor of Malcom Brogdon.
Bledsoe’s performance during the regular season has largely masked the loss of Brogdon in restricted free agency, as has the efficiency of George Hill in a limited capacity, but there is still reason to believe not matching the former Rookie of the Year’s salary could come back to bite Milwaukee in the playoffs. Because Khris Middleton is not a secondary star on the level of others on title favorites in the Western Conference, the Bucks have relied on their depth of high-end talent — namely Bledsoe and Lopez — to separate themselves from the pack among contenders. That continues only if they collectively perform.
(All times Eastern)
July 31: Boston Celtics, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 2: Houston Rockets, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Aug. 4: Brooklyn Nets, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 6: Miami Heat, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 8: Dallas Mavericks, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 10: Toronto Raptors, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 11: Washington Wizards, 9 p.m.
Aug. 13: Memphis Grizzlies, TBD
Obviously, the Bucks are a championship-caliber team. Falling short this season would open the conversation about Antetokounmpo’s ability to win a championship to more scrutiny. It is the natural progression of an all-time talent (see: James, LeBron; Jordan, Michael). Of the nine teams in NBA history that have outscored opponents by double digits per 100 possessions, only the 73-win 2015-16 Golden State Warriors failed to win the title, and they blew a 3-1 Finals lead in embarrassing fashion to one of the greatest players of all time. The Bucks are outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions.
Milwaukee’s playoff losses to the Boston Celtics in 2018 and the Toronto Raptors last season began that conversation, as both teams walled off the interior against Antetokounmpo, daring the rest of the Bucks to beat them. A handful of teams across both conferences boast the personnel to operate a similar scheme this season, beginning with potential second-round matchups against the Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat. Then again, the Bucks have outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo off the floor this season, a mark better than the full contingent of either the Sixers or Heat this season, all evidence that this year’s supporting cast is better equipped to support its superstar.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: First in the East
Finish: NBA Finals loss
More from our NBA restart series:
– – – – – – –
Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter!Follow @brohrbach